One of ExxonMobil's top independent ombudsmen resigned from her post this week with a scathing letter criticizing the company's harassment of nonprofit environmental organizations. The resignation of corporate social responsibility expert Sarah Labowitz—who had been on ExxonMobil's External Citizenship Advisory Panel since 2014—comes as Exxon is pursuing an unusual lawsuit, alleging the state attorneys general from New York and Massachusetts have no right to investigate the company's statements about climate science and questioning their consultations with environmental experts and advocates.
In a letter to the company obtained by Motherboard (embedded below), Labowitz said that she is, "particularly concerned about the company's targeted attack on respected civil society organizations through the courts."
"Many companies face criticism and critique, but few respond with the kind of vehemence and aggressive attack strategy that Exxon has executed over the last year," Labowitz wrote to Ben Soraci, president of the ExxonMobil Foundation and general manager of ExxonMobil's public and government affairs office. "I am disappointed that instead of examining its own record and seeking to restore a respected place for itself in the public debate, Exxon has chosen to turn up the temperature on civil society groups."
The beef stems from reports published in late 2015 by InsideClimate News and the LA Times which revealed that Exxon had known for decades that burning fossil fuels causes climate change before admitting so publicly. The attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts are investigating whether Exxon's public contradiction of its own internal climate science constitutes fraud. Exxon has sued to block them in a federal court in Texas, arguing that questioning climate science is protected speech under the First Amendment and that "the investigations' true purpose" is "to suppress speech with which [the AGs] disagree."
Last month, as part of making that case, Exxon subpoenaed records from a number of environmental organizations and experts to show that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's and Massachusetts AG Maura Healey's consultations with them were proof of the prosecutors' "political bias." At the time, InsideClimate News wrote that, "Exxon's actions are especially remarkable as an example of a giant corporation going after advocacy organizations for their activities."
"This is what you see in countries where the government tries to suppress human rights"
ExxonMobil's "External Citizenship Advisory Panel" was created in 2009 and is made up of five human rights, business, environmental, and government experts. The independent panel critiques the oil company's impact on civil society, human rights, democratic governance, and the environment. Labowitz, the co-director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, believes Exxon's approach is anti-democratic and threatens to have a chilling effect on environmental activism. Exxon has not yet removed Labowitz from the panel's website.
"[Exxon] defines conspiracy as routine advocacy, like holding meetings with government officials," Labowitz told me in a phone call. "That crosses a line. This is what you see in countries where the government tries to suppress human rights."
Exxon filed this dubious lawsuit while Rex Tillerson, the newly-appointed Secretary of State, was still the company's CEO, raising questions about Tillerson's commitment to promoting human rights and civil society abroad. Critics question whether Tillerson can be trusted to advocate for protecting the health of non-governmental organizations abroad while his former company continues to harass them and tries to diminish their role at home.
Labowitz says she advocated internally for dropping the lawsuit before becoming convinced by the recent round of subpoenas that Exxon was "doubling down," and she saw no other alternative but to resign from the unpaid advisory position.
"I think it is a strong signal that ExxonMobil lacks credibility on issues of corporate citizenship and that the company is operating way outside the norm of acceptable corporate conduct," Kathy Mulvey, a climate accountability campaign manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me. The Union of Concerned Scientists is one of the organizations named in Exxon's New York and Massachusetts lawsuits.
"I work at a business school and I see companies that face criticism on human rights frequently," Labowitz said. "Good corporate citizens examine the allegations, look at ways they can improve, and adopt a new way forward. That's what Exxon should do."
Instead, Labowitz believes, Exxon's accusation that there is something improper about elected officials consulting with environmental scientists at non-governmental organizations threatens the health of American democracy and ultimately the company itself.
"Even if they win, they win at such high cost to themselves and society," Labowitz said. "If you succeed in saying that basic everyday civil society advocacy amounts to a conspiracy that's damaging to democratic governance and reduces Exxon's credibility in the public debate. And Exxon should be part of the conversation how we respond to climate change."
"I'm concerned that somebody who, in his role at ExxonMobil took this kind of aggressive approach to civil society groups is now responsible for upholding human rights"
None of the four other members of the ExxonMobil citizenship panel have issued statements, nor did they respond to queries from Motherboard, but ExxonMobil spokesman Alan T. Jeffers sent an email to Motherboard disagreeing with some of Labowitz's contentions.
"We have never characterized any action by civil society representatives as illegal," said Jeffers. "What we have done is defend the company, on behalf of all shareholders, from politically motivated investigations that are biased, in bad faith and without legal merit. We did not start this, but will vigorously defend ourselves against false allegations and mischaracterizations of our climate research and investor communications."
Tillerson's portfolio as secretary of state includes working with other countries to promote not just human rights but global climate and environmental solutions. His predecessor John Kerry played a key role in developing the Paris agreement of 2015 to reduce climate change. Mulvey said Tillerson's legacy of bullying non-government organizations, which remains in place at his former company, sends a distressing signal about his and his former colleagues attitude on human rights and climate action.
"I'm concerned that somebody who, in his role at ExxonMobil took this kind of aggressive approach to civil society groups is now responsible for upholding human rights," said Mulvey. "There are some real questions about whether Tillerson can do that well, based on his track record."